Discover the 4 Most Populated Cities in Ethiopia

Africa, City, City Street, East Africa, Ethiopia
© iStock.com/heckepics

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley

Updated: July 8, 2023

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The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is a landlocked country in the Horn of Africa. With a total area of 429,300 square miles, the country is home to over 113 million people, making it the 12th-most populous country in the world and the second most populous in Africa after Nigeria. The country is the 28th-largest country in the world, and despite being an East African country, most of it lies in the Horn of Africa.

As the oldest independent country in Africa, it is no surprise that Ethiopia has some very old cities, but despite being ancient, most of these cities are still very much inhabited.

Picture graph of the 4 Most Populated Cities in Ethiopia.
Although an ancient country, Ethiopia now has these four large, modern cities.

Because of outdated lists and the use of different names for certain cities, it is difficult to know for sure the most populous cities in Ethiopia. However, based on available records, we give you four of Ethiopia’s most populated cities below. 

1. Addis Ababa – 4,800,000

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, City, Urban Skyline, Aerial View

Addis Ababa is the largest and most populated city in Ethiopia.

©iStock.com/derejeb

Apart from being the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, also called Finfinne, is the largest and most populated city in the country. In Ethiopia, Addis Ababa serves as the nation’s political, economic, and cultural hub. The population of the city is thought to be close to five million, and its 526.5 square kilometers (203.3 square miles) of land area has a population density of almost 9,000 people per square kilometer. The city is occasionally referred to as the African capital because of its historical, diplomatic, and political importance for the continent, as it is the capital city of the oldest country on the continent. It is the third highest capital in the world, rising 7,726 feet above sea level in the Entoto Mountains’ foothills.

Additionally, Addis Ababa is a significant administrative hub for Ethiopia and all of Africa. The city is home to both the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa headquarters. There are two delegations from the US and EU in Addis Ababa, one for bilateral relations with Ethiopia and the other for the African Union. Due to its pivotal role in the history of the Abyssinian Empire, Ethiopia and its capital city have been a source of pride for the Pan-African movement.

Apart from its cultural and economic significance, it is also a tourist hub, as it is one of the most visited places on the continent by tourists. The commercial and cultural center of this largely rural nation, Addis Ababa, is home to numerous significant museums, major colleges, and numerous sites and treasures of Orthodox Ethiopia. The city center of Addis Ababa is home to impressive buildings and all the grandeur one would expect from a national capital. Great mosques, churches, and museums draw tourists from all over the world. Even though Addis Ababa is a cosmopolitan city, Ethiopian culture is still very much alive and well there. There is much to be amazed by in this place, whether you come for the history, the art, or the food.

2. Mek’ele – 545,000

Africa, City, City Street, East Africa, Ethiopia

Mek’ele is the principal center of Ethiopia’s inland salt trade and is the economic, cultural, and political hub of northern Ethiopia. 

©iStock.com/heckepics

With a population of over 500,000 people, Mek’ele is the second most populated Ethiopian city. Also spelt Makalle, it is a small town in northern Ethiopia located around 485 miles north of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and situated 6,778 feet above sea level. Mek’ele is the principal center of Ethiopia’s inland salt trade and is the economic, cultural, and political hub of northern Ethiopia. 

The city of Mek’ele, which was once a small hamlet with only a few dozen permanent residents, is located across a vast plateau in the center of the Tigray National Regional state. Over the past 200 years, the city has grown exponentially. Mek’ele is divided into seven sub-cities: Hawelti, Adi-Haki, Kedamay Weyane, Hadnet, Ayder, Semien, and Quiha. 

As the town’s population and significance increased, so did its status and by the late 1800s, it was home to the largest administrative and religious structures in the area. It is important to note that Me’kele has a number of lovely sights to see. For instance, the amazing acid lakes of the Dallol volcano are not far from the pink salt canyon. The city is also home to many grand architectural structures, religious artefacts, markets, etc.

3. Diré Daoua – 445,000

Dire Dawa Station
The train station in Diré Daoua, a city that boasts a population of almost 500,000 people.

Sometimes spelt as Diré Dawa, this ancient city is Ethiopia’s third most populated city. Although nowhere near the total population of Addis Ababa, Diré Daoua boasts a population of almost 500,000 people. At the bottom of a ring of cliffs, Dire Dawa is located in the country’s east on the Dechatu River. Because it is in one of the driest parts of the nation, the city of Dire Dawa means “empty plain,” and is famed for its elaborate ethnic diversity.

The generally dry Dachata River divides the city into two distinct areas; Kezira and Megala. The beautiful French-built railway station lies at the center of Kezira, a colonial-style neighborhood with stately homes. The medieval Islamic district of Megaala, to the southwest of the river, has a noticeably more natural air, exemplified by a trio of bustling daily markets, Kafira, “Taiwan,” and Ashewa. Although some travelers speed through Dire Dawa on their way from the airport to Harar, it is a vibrant and exciting city that is best explored on foot with a knowledgeable local guide.

4. Adama (Nazrēt) – 435,222

AdamaHotels

An aerial view showing a couple of the hotels and surrounding area in Adama.

©Joe Castleman (Gyrofrog) / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Adama, formerly Nazrēt, is a city in the central Oromia Region of Ethiopia. The city, which is 99 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Addis Ababa, is situated between the Great Rift Valley to the east and the base of an escarpment to the west. The city of Adama is located along the road that connects Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, making it a busy transit hub. Adama is a vibrant and fast expanding city with an estimated population of 435,222.

In the 1940s, the name Nazret was given to Adama in honor of Nazareth, where Jesus was born. In 2000, its name was changed back to Adama, yet it is still sometimes referred to as Nazareth. Adama is much warmer than Addis and other regions of Ethiopia’s highlands due to its location in the Rift valley at an elevation of 1600 meters (750 meters lower than Addis Ababa). Because it is sandwiched between two mountain ranges, it is also significantly drier and experiences plenty of sunshine, even during the rainiest months. 

Located in the regional state of Oromia, the city holds a key position in Ethiopia as a hub for exchanging goods between Ethiopian cities and Eritrean ports. It is also famous for its many thermal springs.

Summary of the 4 Most Populated Cities in Ethiopia

Rank by PopulationName of CityPopulationFeatures
1.Addis Ababa4,800,000Capital; political, economic, tourism, and cultural hub.
2.Mik’ele545,0007 sub-cities; principal center of salt trade.
3.Diré Daoua (Dawa)445,000On Dechatu River; known for ethnic diversity.
4.Adama (Nazrēt)435,222Exchange post between Addis Ababa and Diré Daoua; famous thermal springs.


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